As one of the most renowned show jumping and equitation trainers in the country, Missy Clark has produced champions in all three rings under the North Run name. Clark’s riders have won national equitation championships almost every year for the past 30 years, totaling in over 65 National Championships or Reserve titles. Following her students 1-2-3 finish in the 2020 Platinum Performance/USEF Talent Search Finals-East, Phelps Sports spoke with Clark about what it means to train her current group of equitation riders that have already topped the ranks of the two major equitation championships that have taken place.
You consistently have riders in the top during Finals, but what do you think you have been working on this year that helped to have 3 in the Final Four?
I don’t know that it is one specific thing that we do, but the group of students that we have right now had a decent amount of time with us this season. Elli [Yeager], Zayna [Rizvi] and Sophee [Steckbeck] all had a lot of lesson time at home in Florida. For Ava [Stearns], I am so proud of her because she is the product of sticking with a team and system, and now she is in college, but she has gotten to the proficiency point in her riding and maturity level where she can be at school and still keep up with her riding. She is on the team at school, but that isn’t exactly the same as being at home with us. A lot of that is maturity – the riders look at it a whole different way when they get a little bit older and Ava had been there and done it enough where coming back to train with us was just another day on the job for her.
They are a good group of riders and they have the right mindset. The right mindset is something you can’t teach. You can encourage it, but you can’t teach it and at the end of the day, some people can handle it and others struggle a little bit with getting distracted or nervous. The group of riders I have right now can keep their focus. We just talked about them going in and doing what they know how to do. They have all had a lot of mileage in the jumper ring, which I think is really beneficial to them being able to do all of that.
During the third phase, the water and time allowed did not seem to come into play as much as it has in the past for scoring, can you share your thoughts on why you think that might be?
The judges said in the Rider’s Meeting that their opinion was that if you rode to the water really strongly and the horse just stepped on the tape, if it was a rider error then it would be reflected in the score, but if they felt the horse just misjudged, then it would not affect the score much. We have to remember that these are equitation horses and they do a lot of practice time. They teach these kids how to ride and it is during these years in the equitation that the riders really learn a lot. For me, it is about good riding. If we get good results then that is just an added bonus to the byproduct of good riding, but winning is not my motivation. To me, it is about taking those years where you can practice and learn all of the nuances of riding that help you perfect your position to the best of your ability that make a difference. If these horses land on the tape when the kid rides well to the water, we have to remember we are not judging a grand prix horse here. There are plenty that landed just on the tape, but if they are landing in the middle of it or the rider misses to it, then that is a whole different story. I think the way the judges viewed it this year was fair and reasonable for judging equitation horses.
As far as the time allowed goes, I guess it would have to be taken into consideration when compared to some of the other rounds. For me, that is always a big focus in what we do and I think that is important. If there is going to be a time allowed we need to recognize that as an important part of it. I really stressed to our students that they cannot have a time fault and we strategized with that in mind. One of the places you could get ahead of the time allowed was from fence 1 to 2. Lauren [Hough] had said in the recap interview after the class was pinned that it wasn’t even on her radar that people would do 7 strides there, but when I watched the first couple of horses go I knew that the riders needed to just get the gallop and line it up to make the 7 a viable option. To me, it was horse dependent for sure but if you had a great horse with a reasonable step that was a great place to start off and save yourself some time right from the get-go. I thought the time allowed was very doable if you were managing it properly. I think there were a few kids that had time faults but pinned and that to me just means that the judges thought their riding outweighed the time fault, and that is what makes them the judges.
During our interview with Lauren Hough she said, “It goes to show that in a championship you can be in the middle of the pack on day one and you can still win an individual medal.” While this may have been true a decade ago, do you feel this is still true given the level of the sport now?
All day long! You go to the top of the sport and watch Nations Cup competitions and at the end of round one you will have one team winning but by the end of the second, it is totally different! That is not always the case, but it is not unusual. That is the cool thing about this class, it is meant to be a jumper-seat class and modeled after riding in the jumpers, which is why it is my favorite of them all. To get through to the top four in this final, you have to be able to really ride. It is a great event!
What were some of the key points you went over with your riders as they warmed up each of the different horses for the work-off?
I always feel like the course is done at the canter, not the trot, so we barely trotted and really moved straight into the canter. I had all of them a couple of lead changes so that they could feel what they needed to do to manage a lead change on each horse. All of my kids started with the vertical first and then I had them do a right lead approach to the oxer to simulate the approach to that first fence, which was a triple bar.
Talk a little about Acer K as he is still relatively new to the equitation – what did you see in him that made you confident he would excel in the division?
I bought Max mid-circuit in Florida in 2019. I loved his jump, he is so elegant looking and he had some jumper mileage, so he seemed to have all of the right pieces for the puzzle. Typically they don’t excel that quickly, it usually takes a few years, but he was a quick study. By the time we got to Traverse City, Ava won the Gladstone Equitation Championship and I knew we were in good shape from there. She ended up winning Maclay Regionals with Max, was second in the USET last year, got a ribbon in the Medal, was second in the WIHS Equitation Championship and then won the Maclay last year, so that was impressive results for an unproven commodity! He just has one of those good dispositions. He is on your side and he tries to help you out. He has a great jump, great style, a big stride and a great attitude with the water. You can really count on Max every time you step into the ring.
What about Elli’s riding helped her excel when she rode the other three horses in the work-off?
Elli’s style, and Zayna’s as well, comes down to their attitude when they get on a horse. Their ability to sit on something and pick up a gallop is what sets them apart. Elli had no mistakes to speak of on any of the horses and she really just picked up the gallop and off she went! I feel confident that that is what led to her success in addition to not making any major mistakes.
Grappa was obviously a very special horse for North Run. What does it mean to have Copperfield 39 win the Grappa trophy shortly after his passing this year?
That was so great! I was so thrilled that it was a North Run horse that was awarded that trophy because Grappa was in my life for many years. He won seven national championships with four different riders and I don’t know if that record will ever be matched. He was truly a special horse, so I was thankful that he was in my life. Copper comes out everyday with a wonderful attitude. He has a workman-like way of going and he just pricks and his ears and off he goes! Elli knows him so well but it is great because he can do jumper 1 to 14 with just the same rhythm everywhere, which is awesome. At the same time he is very adjustable, versatile and a rockstar about the water, all of which make him great for the equitation! He is such a good boy. Plus, he takes selfies with Elli and her dad, which is my favorite part!
What were your overall thoughts on the format of USET finals this year at Tryon?
I have to give everyone huge kudos and commend everyone’s efforts. This has been such a difficult year for everybody and all of the teams have really come together. I give the management teams and individual horse show staff a heartfelt thank you from all of us. It was a lot of moving parts in a short amount of time and I thought they couldn’t have done a better job. It was actually really cool to have the three phases of the USET Finals in the Tryon Stadium – it felt great to be in there! Gladstone has so much history and is such a special place, but if it had to be anywhere but Gladstone, none of us could have asked for a better venue than Tryon!